Momentariness or kṣaṇikatva and suchlike


Xanikatv by Mayank Chhaya*

The conventional scholarly wisdom is to suggest that human thought has grown exponentially in sophistication over millennia. The implication of this wisdom is that what a philosopher or a scholar or a scientist conceived of and wrote about, say for instance, 1500 years ago may be considered brilliant for its time but may be archaic and even anachronistic now.

While that could be true of some ideas, there are many ideas dating back millennia whose sophistication is extraordinary in any age. In fact, I would argue that there could well be some decline in the realm of living a purely cerebral life over the millennia.

Taking off a bit on yesterday’s post and my reference to figures such as Kumarila Bhatta and Dharmakirti, I remain captivated by what they propounded. For the purposes of today’s post, I would focus on Dharmakirti.

It is best to extensively quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s section about Dharmakirti:

Dharmakīrti has two arguments for the momentariness (kṣaṇikatva) of all that exists, one quite obscure and unconvincing, which he inherited from previous writers like Vasubandhu (5 century C.E.), and the other more promising.[14] The first argument, which nowadays is commonly known as the vināśitvānumāna, or “the inference of things perishing [spontaneously],” turns on the long-attested Buddhist idea that perishing must be of the intrinsic nature of any object. Perishing due to its intrinsic nature, something will always perish as soon it exists.[15] The point is that such moment by moment destruction is spontaneous (ākasmika) and is the uncaused real nature of things, because it cannot be an effect of any cause. The effect of such a cause, i.e., the absence of the entity, would have to be a type of non-being (abhāva), and non-being is unreal.

A key underlying principle of the vināśitvānumāna is that negative facts, such as absences, are not part of the ultimate furniture of the world, but are just fictional conceptual constructions, as they are devoid of causal powers. Equally, a fiction lacking causal powers is not the effect of something else. While it is obviously impossible to deny that hammers smash pots, the absence (abhāva) of the pot, i.e., the non-existent pot, is not an effect, just as other non-existent things (abhāva), like horns of rabbits, are not effects of anything either. Hammers and the like are thus not actually causes of the pot’s absence but of it turning into potsherds. That idea is perhaps defensible, in that arguably the mere absence of something—a purely negative fact—might be less real and less efficacious than the presence of other things.[16] Nonetheless, the rest of the argument looks to consist in a number of non-sequiturs going from that difference in efficacy and reality between absences and presences to the idea that perishing is somehow the real nature of things, that it must be intrinsic to them, and that therefore things must perish spontaneously moment after moment. Let’s grant the Buddhist view that the perishing of x is the real property of changing into a new thing, and not just x becoming absent. If it is accepted that hammer blows dochange pots into potsherds, then why couldn’t someone skeptical about the Buddhist’s arguments just take that as the model of how things perish when they do?

There is, fortunately, a much better argument for intrinsic momentariness than the problematicvināśitvānumāna. This argument is known as “the inference [of things’ momentariness] from the [mere] fact of [them] existing” (sattvānumāna), and seems to be largely Dharmakīrti’s own invention, first developed in the second chapter of his Pramāṇaviniścaya. If anything exists and is a specific thing rather than another, it is because of its causal efficacy (arthakriyā), or powers to produce such and such effects. Thus, the sattvānumāna reasoning, concisely formulated, is that things are impermanent, i.e., are new things moment after moment, because they are always causally efficient in some way. (Although not stated, it seems to be presupposed that real thingsare every moment causing some or another different effect. The differences between effects would be subtle ones that often escape our perception.) The key step in the argument is that nothing causes new effects while itself remaining the same. Dharmakīrti, in the opening passages of the Vādanyāya, argues that if something were permanent (nitya), it would be causally inert as it would neither produce its effects all at once (yaugapadyena) nor serially (kramena). Of course, it is the second hypothesis that is the most attractive possibility for an espouser of permanently enduring things: he would hold that a permanent unchanging cause would produce a series of different effects, not because the cause changes in any way, but simply because of the presence of new and different surrounding circumstances.

On the face of it, all this may may be a set of recondite philosophical ideas but if you stay with them for a length of time, they would begin to make sense. Take my word for it.

In my Facebook update yesterday I said referring this while referring to Dharmakiriti” “The idea that things that are permanent are "causally inert", as advocated by Dharmakirti in the 6th or 7th century CE is extraordinary in any age.”

To which my childhood friend and fellow nerd responded, “I don’t understand what is meant by "causally inert", but is anything in this universe permanent?”

I responded saying, “You raise a valid question but Dharmakiriti’s point is not that the universe is permanent–it is precisely to the contrary–his point is that if there was something permanent at all, it would not cause any effect or change because of its inherent permanence.”

To think that over 1400 years after his time Dharmakirti can get two friends living 10,000 miles apart engage in a serious discussion about his ideas is in itself remarkable.

*The painting above titled ‘Xanikatv (Momentariness) was inspired after reading Dharmakirti’s philosophy.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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